Across the Bay

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Irrelevance of Political Arabism

Before I go ahead with this post, I would like to apologize for the absence and spotty posting. I was, and still am, swamped with work. So I must ask for your patience and understanding.

Due to the demands of my work, I will have to cut down on round-ups, and stick more to analysis and commentary. For round-ups on Lebanon, the place to go to is Publius Pundit. Robert Mayer is regularly checking the Lebanese English-language papers, as well as the reactions of many Lebanese bloggers. One such blogger is Lebanese Abroad, who has been posting some analysis on Hizbullah and the opposition. Also, always check out Rich Anderson, although he too is on short hiatus due to travel. I will continue to supplement that with stories from Arabic-language papers, as well as other commentary and analysis from elsewhere.

While my previous post dealt with Hizbullah and how some commentators interpreted the dynamics of numbers and democracy, this post will deal with the role of Arabism in the current crisis in Lebanon and Syria. This also was part of how many commentators (e.g., Seale, Cobban, inter al.) presented the situation: Arabism vs. Israel and the US. Of course --and I showed how these commentators end up parroting the lines of the regional despots-- this was the discourse in Bashar's speech, replaying the old Baathist clichés on how this was the old struggle between Western and Zionist imperialism and the nationalist forces of Arabism. You'll also remember that I said that Arabism as an ideology is called upon when a regime is in danger. This is precisely what happened in 1948 when the Syrians used the ideology of Arabism to drag reluctant Arab states to war with embryonic Israel. The whole point behind the war, as Joshua Landis convincingly argued, was to keep Abdullah of Jordan, with his Greter Syria plans, at bay. I.e., it was a distraction, a smoke screen; ideology in a Marxist sense.

As such, it was natural for Bashar to invoke it in his speech. As Josh again argued, "that's exactly why Assad tried to paint this as the Arabs against the West and Israel, because he's trying to win Arab support for his position. And he's trying to paint the Lebanese opposition as agents of the West and, in particular, of Israel." Needless to say, he failed. None of the Arab states were impressed. In fact, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan all pressured Syria to withdraw swiftly. So, what does this say about Arabism? Josh himself (before wobbling that is, as we'll discuss below) wondered whether it spelled the end of Arabism:

Syria is the last leg holding up the increasingly wobbly edifice of Arab nationalism.
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Every Arab country has adopted a policy of me first. King Abdullah has been the loudest and most open in proclaiming a policy of Jordan first. But as one Arab country after another has fallen in step with America’s diplomacy, they too have adopted the me first strategy. Saddat, of course, did it first, leading to Egypt’s isolation and his assassination, decades before Hariri’s. But all the other Arab leaders have followed suit, some quietly and others with more fanfare, such as Muammar Qadhafi.

If Syria pulls out of Lebanon swiftly and completely, as it should, it will have given up on Arab nationalism – at least, in everything but name. The constitution will still trumpet that Syria is only “a region of the Arab nation,” and the Baath Party will still claim it stands for “Arab Unity,” but they will be nothing but folkloric relics of a rapidly disappearing creed. Syria claims that it will “protect the Arabism of Lebanon.” But without a military presence in Lebanon, only the Lebanese will be able to decide their identity.

Syria will be left no choice but to join the “me first” generation of Arab states. Many reformists here are gambling that Bashar will do just that – quite possibly even announcing an ambitious and reinvigorated agenda of internal reforms to deflect his foreign embarrassments and turn the recent struggle inward. There is no telling if he will do this. I doubt he will. It would require a revolution.

Josh also related the reaction of many Syrians to the speech:

Most Syrians appreciated the president’s rhetoric about Arabism and how Syria is protecting its identity and that of the Arabs more generally. They see the recent events as he does – a battle between the forces of imperialism and Zionism against those of the embattled Arabs and Syrians.

Then, based on Hasan Nasrallah's speech at the Hizbullah rally, Josh claimed that "the Arabist rhetoric of the Baath Party and Bashar al-Asad still resonates in the hearts of millions." Josh further related how many Syrians appreciated that Baathist rhetoric from Nasrallah. Josh never critically assessed that speech and rather seemed to be sucked into the Syrian internalizing of this rhetoric, especially about the Syrian and Lebanese people being "one." Sure enough, this brief moment of succor provided by Nasrallah was soon drowned out by a mammoth protest that made crystal clear where the Lebanese stand on that issue.

Many are wasting time dissecting the rhetoric of Bahia Hariri, Walid Jumblat, and other opposition figures on the issue of Arabism and relations with Syria. And every time there's a nod to the rhetoric of Arabism, these commentators (cf. Angry Hair) dump their premises on it: "see, the opposition is divided, the Sunnis don't like the agenda of the right-wing Maronites and want to have good relations with Syria."

All the above confuses many things, and displays a shallow understanding of how Arabist rhetoric works in the region, especially in Lebanon. So what I will do is draw a few distinctions that one must keep in mind when approaching this thorny subject. I will divide matters under two broad categories: 1- Cultural Arabism and 2- Political Arabism. The two intersect to be sure, but it's important to draw a distinction.

Cultural Arabism

Chuck Freund has a really excellent post on the subject that's a must read (and not just because he plugs me!):

There's a long history of struggle to escape the Arabist straightjacket.

Lebanon, Fouad Ajami recently wrote in the WSJ, "was where Arab modernism made a stand." Perhaps contemporary Lebanonism can best be understood as a self-conscious embrace of that fact. While not necessarily opposed to an Arabist identity, Lebanonism provides a vital alternative that has long been an irritant to those Arab nationalists who have sought to subsume the different cultures of the Mideast into a single political/historical narrative; Arabists are inclined to disparage this rival as shallow, bourgeois, and even racist. It's a threat to them, and its political success will make it an even greater threat, because it may become a model not only for political change, but also for cultural change.

Only Syria remains as a failing bulwark of political Arabism; the issue may now be the survival of cultural Arabism as the dominant regional model. There is already evidence that many citizens of post-Baathist Iraq have rejected the old totalist Arabism, and it is very likely that in a liberalizing Egypt (where playwright Ali Salem is seeking to revive a Mediterranean-oriented outlook), Arabism will merely be one voice among many. In the meantime, Lebanonism, in all its free and libertine disorder, remains on daily display in Martyr's Square.

Of course, you could see Angry Hair cringing with disgust at this post (if you don't believe me, just read the pathetic intro to his Historical Dictionary). Chuck nailed it on the head.

But how is this related to what I've laid out so far? As Chuck points out (see also this piece by David Hirst), many people, like Samir Qassir, have tried to paint the Lebanese popular revolution as a new "Arab awakening." Qassir was strict in dismissing the "Lebanonism" of the phenomenon because in his mind Lebanonism means "isolationism." In that sense, he echoed the prejudices and biases of many of the Third-Worldist and Arabist commentators. Lebanonism = Maronite exceptionalism = Maronite dominance = anti-Arabism. Needless to say, this view is not only anachronistic, it's also selective and, frankly, outright false, distorted, and stupid. Chuck's post explains why.

But it begs a question. Why is Qassir so adamant about painting this with the Arabist brush? Well, when you read Josh's comments and hear Bashar's speech, you'll understand perfectly. This leaves you with two possibilities: 1- that Qassir has internalized this nonsense (he wouldn't be the first), or 2- this is mandatory rhetoric for Lebanon (especially Christians in Lebanon). But why is it mandatory? Here's where political Arabism steps in.

Political Arabism

After reading Josh's more recent posts, where he did little more than regurgitate the Arabist rhetoric internalized by so many Syrians, I had a back and forth with him via email. There he made a statement regarding "the Syrian worldview," which he had described in his posts as "Arabism and stability." Then based on Nasrallah's speech said that the Baathist rhetoric, with its anti-Zionist, anti-Imperialist line, resonated with many in Lebanon. But then, when I said that his turning this issue into something about Israel was uncritically buying into the Syrian line and ignoring other facts on the ground, he dropped this on me: "I didn't' say anything about Israel."

Clearly he did. But then I started wondering, what exactly is political Arabism? There are two essential elements: 1- Pan-Arab unity, and 2- the centrality of the Palestinian cause, which in other terms means "anti-Israel" ideology.

The first pillar has long proved a failure, especially after the colossal collapse of the pathetic UAR experiment. Josh himself talked about the "me first" stance of the Arab states and himself discussed the "me first" undertones of the 1948 war with Israel. So, what is political Arabism, which encapsulates the "Syrian worldview," if not the centrality of Israel and the Palestinian cause?

The reason why Josh's denial took me by surprise is evident in his statements I quoted above (and others in his recent posts). Add to that all his (and Seale's) emphasis on the Golan as the primary strategic interest driving Syrian policy.

But this ideology that identifies the Israeli-Arab conflict as the driving force behind any political consciousness in the ME, one that should take precedence over anything else, goes well beyond Josh. Princeton's Michael Doran just wrote a short piece for Foreign Affairs on the matter that explains it perfectly:

The school's adherents were so myopically focused on Israel as the "root cause" of the region's problems, I claimed, that they failed to appreciate the diversity and significance of various inter-Arab conflicts.
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And they have been shocked by the recent developments in Lebanon, because the spectacle of teeming Lebanese crowds protesting Syria's occupation -- rather than Israel's -- was beyond their imaginations.

What all these "surprises" have in common is that they can be traced to local issues. They came as a shock because they put paid to the concept at the heart of the "root cause" school's thinking: a monolithic pan-Arab public opinion driven by an obsessive concern with the Palestinians and their supposed Israeli and American oppressors.

The attempt by Bashar to return this into the anti-Israel prism hit a stone wall everywhere except with Hizbullah. The reason is obvious, but it has nothing to do with the adoption of political Arabism. Fighting Israel is Hizbullah's raison d'être and source of prestige, and foremost, the reason why it gets to keep its arsenal.

Josh stayed on the level of discourse and never once attempted to critically assess Hizbullah's rhetoric. This is not to say that Hizbullah doesn't believe this rhetoric (I'm sure they do), but there's a lot going on underneath it. First of all, Hizbullah only recently shifted to the Arabist rhetoric. All along it held the Islamist line. It morphed the two into a "pan-Arabist Islamic" line when it needed to. It did so for various reasons: 1- the Islamist agenda in Lebanon had no hope. The country is too diverse and too liberal to ever accept it. 2- the corollary to that is that Hizbullah is a Shiite group, with a Khomeinist agenda. That's two strikes against you! Islamist groups are bad enough, but a Shiite Islamist group? That will never fly. Too many Sunnis around to prevent it.

That's why Hizbullah needed to modify the rhetoric in order to achieve regional (i.e. Sunni Arab) acceptance and relevance. It succeeded during the late 90's and in 2000 when the Israelis finally withdrew. That was the peak of Hizbullah's success. It has been downhill ever since. But during that time and in the immediate aftermath, Hizbullah milked the "Arab" rhetoric. One has to remember another element beside the strategic goal of maximizing regional relevance (which means involvement in the Palestinian territories, and later, much more subdued and confused, in Iraq). There's the minoritarian complex. The essence of that message is that it was us the Shi'a who scored the only victory against the Arab's mortal enemy, Israel. All you Sunnis failed. This was part of the Arabisierung of Hizbullah. For a while it worked. I recently took a look at Avi Jorisch's new monograph on al-Manar and its coverage of the recent Iraq war. The rhetoric was totally pan-Arab, mixed with anti-Israel rhetortic. But a central message was the haughtiness of Hizbullah and the shame and laziness of the Arabs. "We," Hizbullah, "showed you how to win against Israel. Why do you sit still?" Remember that by this time, Hizbullah's fight against Israel was comically confined to a stand-still at the Shebaa Farms. It needed to revive this "perpetual revolution" to recapture the brief moment in the sun. Alas, no one in the "Arab street" answered the call.

There was also a much more problematic dilemma. Hizbullah's Shiite cousins in Iraq benefitted greatly form the war (Tim Cavanaugh tried to push a Hizbullah MP to admit that in an interview), and after the elections, the entire Arab world lost any interest in the kind of incitement that was being propagated by al-Jazeera and al-Manar, and instead turned its attention inwards. Hizbullah was back to being merely a Shiite militia/party, much to the utter dismay of its ambitious megalomaniacal secretary general.

And you can tell that it wasn't going anywhere when Sunni states started talking anxiously about preventing a Iran-controlled or Tehran-friendly "Shiite crescent" from forming. If that wasn't enough, the Palestinians (and many Iraqis outside the hapless Muqtada Sadr) made it clear that they don't want Hizbullah involved at all in their affairs. Then finally the Lebanese opposition came out rather bluntly and said that Hizbullah has to abandon its regional ambitions and focus exclusively on the Lebanese interior. That means no more military confrontation with Israel. Jumblat called for a return to the armistice, saying that the Shebaa Farms were Syrian until the Syrians provide documents proving otherwise. Butros Harb said that Hizbullah has to be aware that its talk about "liberating Jerusalem" is not acceptable to the Lebanese. I.e., all politics turned explicitly local, and the anti-Israel discourse became nothing more than a tool to smear opponents, as demonstrated by Bashar's speech. But even that has lost its luster.

Just recently, Jumblat said that he's suspending any dialogue with Hizbullah until he gets an explanation as to why the Hizbullah protestors in Nabatiyeh the other day held posters depicting Jumblat as an Orthodox Rabbi. Translation: in Hizbullah's and Baathism' world, this means that you are a traitor, which in turns could mean a death sentence. It became worrisome because that's exactly how Bashar attacked Jumblat in his speech, calling him a merchant who has sold his soul to Israel. Josh commented on that as well in that interview I linked above:

When it came to Lebanon, he said that the Lebanese opposition and politicians were merchants, political merchants. He was accusing them of being manipulated by the outside. And what he was saying, in a sense, is that they are symbolically Jews, because they are being used by a conspiracy between the United States and Israel.
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He compared the "assassination" of Arafat to the assassination of Hariri. The implication of that, which he didn't spell out, is that the Israelis assassinated Arafat just as they had assassinated Hariri. He suggested that this is part of a larger attack by Israel and the United States against the Arab world, not just against Syria.

So the Arabism talk is a means to threaten and smear opponents. It's hollow. It hasn't changed the focus of the Lebanese demand for a Syrian withdrawal. No one is concerned with Israel either way. No one is saying the Lebanese will run and sign a peace accord, but everyone is saying, a continued state of military confrontation located exclusively in Lebanon is not acceptable.

All the other Arabist lip-service found in Bahia' speech or others' statements is not dogmatic. That's what commentators don't understand. It's all local politics. But not only that, I argue that underneath the Arabist shell, it actually conveys a distinctly Lebanonist message. Let me explain.

Doran made an excellent point in that short piece: "The medium itself is the message." This was in reference to Shiite demonstrations in Saudi Arabia that chanted anti-Israel and anti-American slogans. But the real message had nothing to do with that. It was internal politics using the permissible discourse.

Similarly, everyone in Lebanon is going to use that Arabist line to push forward what is essentially a Lebanonist message. The fact that this comes from a Sunni politician like Hariri makes it all the more important. Who doesn't want to have excellent relations with the neighbors? But at the same time, despite the language of Arab brotherhood, what's being asked is the respect of Lebanese independence and sovereignty. Hardly a pan-Arabist message. On a side note, this political language of "brotherhood" predates Arabism. In the texts I deal with from the Late Bronze Age in the Levant, the terminology of "father," "son," and "brother" was used systematically to describe political alliances and rank. So using it today is as conventional as it was thousands of years ago.

When you hear the seemingly double talk about Israel "we won't sign peace, but we don't want war" that should unmistakably remind you of the Lebanonist neutral rhetoric of the pre-war days. That position was violated by the Palestinians in the late 60's and 70's. Today things have changed. No one is interested in that anymore. Only Syria is singing that song, but everyone is singing the "me first" tune. Witness the anti-Jordanian and anti-Syrian protests in Iraq! Everyone realizes that under the rhetoric lie the local interests of Syria, who's using the rhetoric, and local Iraqi interests, who are rejecting Syria's involvement. So, nothing has changed since 1948. It's all local politics.

Therefore despite the Arabist rhetoric, the message is "Lebanon first;" exactly what the Lebanonists said. That Jumblat and Hariri are saying it means that Lebanonism is no longer a Chrisitian credo. One can go on integrating Fouad Ajami and Albert Hourani's "Ideologies of the Mountain and the City" (see also this piece by Mamoun Fandi, courtesy of reader G.G.) but I believe I've made my point.

Is Political Arabism Relevant?

Let me go back to Cultural Arabism and the intersection with Political Arabism.

Chuck made a great point that summarizes it all: Lebanonism is not oppposed to a cultural Arab identity. The only difference is that Arabism will be subsumed within the Lebanonist framework, and can no longer override it. Many people will still uphold an Arab identity and that's their fundamental right. But like with Iraq, that can no longer be an exclusivist ideology.

That's why I found Qassir's remarks rather idiotic. He's operating within the exclusivist framework and he missed the broader picture. Chibli Mallat also bent over backwards trying to redefine Arabism in light of the Lebanese and Iraqi experiences. What he wanted to get to was in many respects laudable (though not original, as Kanan Makiya had already put it forward):

At the core of the message is the need for democratic, non-violent change at the top in the Middle East, with Arabism read as a liberal call that unifies people irrespective of their religion or sect: in Egypt Copts and Muslims; in Lebanon the various communities that form the country; in Iraq Shiites, Sunnis and non-Muslim sects.

The example of Iraq, where Arabism is not capable of giving Kurds their due of equal citizenship, is particularly telling of the more advanced thought needed to accommodate all citizens - hence the surge of the concept of federalism as a further trait of White Arabism. Only federalism can allow forms of Arab identity to be preserved while Kurds are treated as equal both on the individual level and as a collective community.

But this really ties you up in knots. It sounds paradoxical (because in the end all this is still put under the exclusivist label of "Arabism") and it treads on thin ice with its historical precedents, most notably the example of Saad Zaghlul! Moreover, what unites the Lebanese in Lebanon, the Egyptians in Egypt, and the Iraqis in Iraq is not "Arabism" it's the respective local nationalism, or the idea of Lebanon or Iraq as a plural society for all its citizens (or the idea of a consociational democracy). Chibli then falls prey to the other maxim of Arabism by bringing that paradigm back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's a trap. As Mike Doran said, the greatest thing that ever happened to the Israelis and Palestinians was putting the issue back in its proper context, disentangling it from the broader Arab web. The Iraqis have done the same, and the Lebanese are carefully trying to do the same, with Bashar (and the crypto-Arabist journalists and "experts") trying to suck it back into that matrix, because that ideology has served the Syrians well to maintain their domination over Lebanese political (and economical) life.

But all this got me to rethink several things. Was the struggle about Arabism in the early years of Lebanon's existence an identity struggle? In other words, was it a matter of Cultural Arabism or Political Arabism? It's probably a mixture, what I called the intersection of the two (and in many ways, an illiberal cultural Arabism, like that critiqued by Makiya, works hand in hand with political Arabism). However, I think that it was really an issue of political Arabism that triggered the issue of cultural Arabism, not vice versa. I think that the pillars of political Arabism, pan-Arab unity and perpetual war with Israel, threatened Lebanon to its very core. It threatened its very existence, and also threatened its stability and economic prosperity. Now that the first pillar has been totally dismissed, what remains is the second. Rafiq Hariri, being a businessman, was an example of Ajami's "Arab modernism" or Hourani's pluralist, mercantile "ideology of the city" or Michel Chiha's Lebanonism (Asher Kaufman, author of the very good Reviving Phoenicia mentions that Hariri's touristic promotion of Lebanon assimilated the Phoenicianist narrative!). That's why Hariri was constantly at odds with Hizbullah's and Syria's perpetual war front in the south. Eventually it cost him his life. So even if his sister is now using her brother's legacy, mixed with Arabist rhetoric, and Hizbullah's liberation rhetoric, it must not be seen as anything more than local politics. It doesn't mean that she wants Syrian hegemony to continue. She is using the Arabist rhetoric to do two things: trying to invite Hizbullah to join the opposition, and trying to redefine relations with Syria on a good but healthy basis. A similar use of Arabist rhetoric can be seen in this piece by Nawaf Salam, another Sunni notable.

But what everyone is now assuming is an independent Lebanon, where all the communities share power, and where neutrality secures business. Nothing is more Lebanonist than this message. On a related note, it was interesting to read this op-ed by EU MP Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the French Libération, which echoed the old "auberge des minorités" narrative:

C'est ce Liban-là que nous devons aider à reconstruire, un pays qui a accueilli généreusement une multitude d'intellectuels et d'opposants provenant des nombreuses dictatures que compte la région, un pays où vivent beaucoup de réfugiés palestiniens expulsés de Jordanie, un pays qui est riche d'une importante communauté arménienne ayant fui le génocide ottoman.

But this pluralist Lebanon, like Chuck said, is not at odds with the existence of an Arab identity. That's why this is not even an issue with anyone in Lebanon! No one is using this to reject a cultural Arab identity. That's why no Sunnis are finding the need to be defensive on this issue. But that's why Qassir's, and Mallat's pieces, are really beside the point. No one is really concerned with this topic. No one, perhaps, except idiotic Third-Worldists. But those guys are more concerned with political Arabism and its "Palestine first" doctrine. That's the tune that Bashar tried to play, and that Josh thought resonated due to Nasrallah. The reality is, it was drowned by the calls to end the Syrian occupation. No one was concerned, either way, with Israel. That was also the reaction I got from a member of the opposition when I was in Lebanon. I brought up the issue of Israel and his reaction was as if I changed the topic or went off on a tangent.

Mamoun Fandi put it rather well:

The rally of Nasrallah was mobilizational, like the rallies of the Baath party and the rallies of the Socialist Union, aimed at shifting the topic to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the confrontation between Syria and Israel. The underlying message to Nasrallah's rally was "forget Hariri." At the surface it might seem like a succesful strategy, but it possible that Hizbullah will pay dearly for this strategic error.

As such, Josh Landis is totally off in his interpretation of Arabism and its resonance (and yes, the worldview of Arabism is, as I've shown, about the use of the conflict with Israel.) It's used yes, but it has nothing to do with the way it's being interpreted by Bashar or his effective spokesmen in Western journalism: i.e., in the sense of "the conflict with Israel and imperialism is the central pivot of our lives, and we are willing to freeze all our socio-economical and political demands and accept anything until it's solved." No, that's not the case (maybe it is in Syria, but not in Lebanon, Iraq, or Egypt). It's an issue for sure, but it's nowhere near central, as the Iraqis and the Lebanese have made abundantly clear. This is why the Iraqi elections were important. It changed the rules from looking outward and repeating the bankrupt slogans (the "rage of the Arab street"), to looking inward and demanding a better life. Josh had it right earlier: "me first" is the name of the game.

Arabist rhetoric is used for local politics, and is redefined by local politics. Bashar's and Nasrallah's attempt to use it for regional politics is hitting a wall. And their attempt to use it as a tool to smear and intimidate opponents will only weaken it further. Beyond that, it's become totally irrelevant as a political ideology. And thank God for that. Now we may have a chance to actually move forward and solve our internal problems (what Bashar is trying to delay as much as possible with none other than Arabist rhetoric), each on our own.